Family Ties

Stray: A Memoir BY Stephanie Danler. New York: Knopf. 256 pages. $18.
Stephanie Danler. Photo: Emily Knecht

Stephanie Danler’s new memoir, Stray, begins with the author’s return to her native California after the publication of Sweetbitter (2016), her best-selling debut novel. Danler interweaves the mythology of the storied, volatile land she comes from with that of the three complicated people who shaped her most: her mercurial, alcoholic mother; her estranged, charismatic, meth-addicted father; and “the Monster,” a sadistically charming married man with whom she’s having a toxic affair. Stray sees Danler fight for independence and survival—an apt theme for a book released during the third month of a global pandemic.

For Bookforum, I spoke with Danler—who was pregnant with her second child and preparing for a virtual book tour—about willful amnesia, the fallibility of memory, and her initial resistance to memoir.

Place and sensory detail have always factored so strongly in your work. Can you talk a bit about that connection between landscape and character?

I have always been interested in place as a reflection of a psychological landscape. I think all of us are familiar with the experience of arriving someplace while it’s dark out and having this foreboding, fearful feeling; then waking up in the morning and it’s a beautiful, safe place—depending on the time of day, depending on your mood and the context. When I moved back to California, I loved that Laurel Canyon, for me, like the Malibu of your childhood, could be both shabby and unstable but also paradise—and free, in a lot of ways. During those first two years, I was writing what I was haunted by, and I felt both things at the same time: “I’m a stranger here,” and “This place is in my blood.” I didn’t know which one was true. Both turned out to be true.

I pitched a piece to the editor of The Sewanee Review, Adam Ross, called “Engrams, California,” about Owens Lake. I had become fascinated by the Owens Valley and the destruction of that lake through the Los Angeles Aqueduct in the early twentieth century; the water we stole—“imported,” is what they say—to build Los Angeles. In the middle of that essay, I realized that I was also writing about my father. And that was when I knew that the people I’ve loved who have hurt me—who have required amnesia for me to be close to—were deeply connected with this land, and to that sort of amnesia that’s required for us to live in such an inhospitable landscape. Malibu is the classic example, because we keep building, and it goes against common sense and the laws of nature. I think that Angelenos are lured by the magic of the temporary, the magic of “this might not be here in ten years.” The threat of danger. We tend to romanticize it, and I think that as Americans we also think we’re immune. We believe that it won’t be us. In order to live here, there’s a lot of denial that has to happen.

You’ve spoken about the initial pull towards writing about your family—how fraught and simultaneously inevitable it felt. Did you have some sense that your next project after Sweetbitter might be a memoir?

From a logistic standpoint, I sold Sweetbitter in a two-book deal, and I had sold them a novel as my second book. A novel that I had an idea of, and I spent a lot of time researching, and never wrote a word of. The move to California, in many ways, was about searching for the place to write this next book, which was not about California and was entirely fictional. And when I got back here, I accepted a writing assignment from Vogue. I had done a tiny bit—I’m talking five pages—in a word document, that I had just been messing around with, about my father’s crystal-meth addiction. And I thought, “Vogue will never go for this, because it’s way too dark.” When they wanted it, I was terrified. I tried to pull it twice—I’m very glad I didn’t—but I was also thrilled by the challenge of it. It had that sort of fever, that hot racing-blood feeling, whether it was because I was taking a risk writing it, whether it was because I had never talked about it with anyone, or because it left me so vulnerable; I don’t know. I cried a lot while I wrote it, I felt sick a lot of the time while I wrote it, and it’s not just remembering my fear—it’s hard to inhabit your imagination in a very fearful, traumatized place, in a place where you’re six years old and have no control; it’s very difficult to go back there and hold space there, but I also started to realize how alike my father and I had become, even if I did not have a crystal-meth addiction.

Likewise, during that time I started to visit my mother again, because I was living in California, and I realized that while I was not a disabled alcoholic, I had inherited her sadness and her lean towards self-destruction. And those things were very much on my mind for the following year. That was the year Sweetbitter came out, and I was touring, and traveling a lot, but they were haunting me. It was like they were back, after all this time in New York where I didn’t have to think about them. Still, through that whole year, I told myself and my editor that I was writing a novel. And at the end of that year, after I wrote the “Engrams” piece, I wrote my agent and my editor and said, “I think I’m going to do a book of personal writing.” My agent said, “Like a memoir?” and I said, “No, no, not like a memoir. Personal writing. I could never write a memoir.” [laughs] And that was because there were certain expectations of that genre that I did not feel I could deliver. I did not see a big moment of catharsis or a big clear turning point. I did not have anything prescriptive to say. I did not hike the Pacific Crest Trail, and I did not go on a spiritual quest to India. My story felt much too small to be considered a memoir. And then eventually I admitted that you could call it whatever you wanted, but what I was writing was the truth about my life and my story.

As I began to read more memoirs, I began to realize that they are as experimental in form as a novel. What you’re using as the main artery is yourself, as opposed to a fictional world. But they don’t have to be linear; they can have an elliptical narrative, they can be impressionistic—in fact, some of the best ones are—and I became OK with the genre.

I devoured Stray in two days. There is such urgency and such momentum in the writing. I’m curious to know whether that quality is a reflection of the way it was written—after that first essay, did it come out of you quickly?

It did. I wrote the first draft in nine very intense weeks, and revised it four complete times after that, but it came very quickly. This is after four years of collecting material. I don’t want to make it sound easier than it was—I had an outline at that point, and I had pretty much decided on the main scenes of the book, the big climaxes of each section, what I was going to include. I had hundreds of note cards. And so, yes, by the time I sat down to do it, it did come quickly. And I think it shows in the prose. The first draft of Sweetbitter took me two years to write, and while they share similarities stylistically, they’re very different. You can tell. I really labored over the sentences in Sweetbitter—that’s not a good or bad thing, I just think you can see the difference.

I’m of the opinion that all memoir is a sort of fiction—there is still the building of narrative and of worlds; the crafting of characters. It seems essentially impossible to “get things right,” considering the subjective natures of memory and perspective. Still, it seems there can be a lot of pressure to do so. What was the thing that felt most vital to you to “get right” as you wrote Stray?

I tend to agree with you. I actually don’t take the distinction between fiction and creative nonfiction very seriously. And I personally don’t care what you call your book, whether it’s a novel or “personal writing” or a memoir. But in the case of Stray, yes; constructing it is a fiction, absolutely. The book is defined by what you leave out of it. And in that, you’re exerting a control over your past and writing your history with a massive bias. Memory itself is so fallible, and with memoir I try to hold true to remembered fact, which—the two can cancel each other out. I knew that I had to tell my truth as simply and honestly as possible, and that included being critical of myself and not just of people who have hurt me. But throughout the writing, my sister would say, “That didn’t happen like that,” “I didn’t remember it that way,” or my friend would ask, “How do you write a quote? How do you quote me?” And, in certain cases, for example with the Monster, everything that is a quote in the book is taken from a transcript of our conversations, our letters, our texts. For the most part, so are the quotes from other people. To pretend that you remember word for word how you bantered at the Polo Lounge on Christmas Eve is not totally accurate.

There is another version of this memoir that’s more investigative, and we all know and enjoy those memoirs—“I want to find out who my parents are, and I want to interview my mom’s boyfriends from childhood, and I want to interview my aunts about my dad’s adolescence”—and then, my parents aren’t reliable sources, but I could’ve included them as well. But this book is so much about the absence of them, and the absence of information, and living with that—not about the pursuit of something that I ultimately don’t think I can know. I’ve given up knowing the truth about anything, and that includes the Monster—I’ll never know what his marriage was like, or what his life was like, just like I’ll never know who my father was when he disappeared on drug benders. And so I let go of that pretty early, as far as “I want to get to the bottom of things,” and I decided to lean into the subjectivity and fallibility of my own narrative machine.

“The book is defined by what you leave out of it”—this makes me think of a photographer framing a shot, choosing what to leave out of frame. How did you decide what to include and what to leave out—and where to begin the story?

The photography metaphor is interesting, because I did use something that Roland Barthes writes about in Camera Lucida, which is this idea of punctum—that in a given photograph, there is punctum, which he defines as the “accident which pricks me.” It’s the surprising detail. In my own head, I think of it as the tender spot, the spot that you keep circling back to and you don’t know why. I’m looking at a painting right now and I can see exactly what the punctum of that painting is for me, and I was very aware of that as I was collecting notes on my past and on California—that if there was a tender spot, it was worth investigating. If I was resistant to writing it, it probably needed to be written. I can think of a dozen examples from the book, of things I knew I had to write, whether they were very ugly sex scenes, or my mother’s car crash, which wasn’t in the first draft of the book and took me a long time to come around to, because it felt like too much. And so I kept looking for that bruise within myself, which isn’t to say that every scene in the book is about trauma, but in a way it is about a period of time in which I was grappling pretty nonstop with trauma. The things that are left out, which are referenced, are really the moments of levity—that I see friends, that I have dinner parties, that I go dancing, that I make jokes, that I take naps—scenes of contentment that didn’t seem related to this story, because this story is about grappling with your demons and figuring out if you can move forward or if you are going to be stuck in this spot for the rest of your life.

As far as the beginning of the book, I knew it had to do with coming back to California, and I knew there was a sort of Proustian moment of remembrance, which in this book is the Santa Ana winds, and LA writing has a long tradition of writers being fascinated by the winds. In this case, I moved back in the middle of fire season, and it all felt so familiar. After taking this place for granted, after not thinking about it, after thinking that I would never leave the East Coast, I realized that I, who consider myself a stray, was actually home. I knew that that was the beginning.

Did you write this book in order? I know you wrote “Engrams” first, but after that, did you have some conception of what would go where? How did the structure emerge?

I did not write in order. I collected on note cards and in a master draft. At a certain point, probably from my television training, I started to really use the note cards, and if I had a note card that was particularly poignant to me, if it was an note card that said “Laurel Canyon, landslides, Fleetwood Mac, stray cat,” which is the beginning of the book essentially, I would tack it up on the wall and leave it there. Later, after that, came the Mother, Father, Monster structure—which traditionally would be “Mother, Father, Myself,” if you’re writing about your parents, and in the case of Stray, the monster is myself. But once I had that, I could move the note cards and say, “This really belongs in Mother, this really belongs in Father, this really belongs in Monster.”

This is totally different from how I wrote Sweetbitter, in which I started the book and just kept moving forward, and had an idea of what the ending was but did not have a draft of it—did not have anything until I arrived there. In the case of the ending, that note card would have said “Sunset Boulevard, thirty-second birthday, what else is possible for me?” All that was arranged on a board—so it was outlined. I think it’s especially important to note that. And I had help during my draft from very smart people to achieve pacing in the midst of something that wasn’t so grounded in a linear narrative. I think that Stray sort of circles a center. It’s something that’s hard to do, and something I think was probably not successful in my first draft. I really paid attention to it in the revisions that came after. Anytime you write a book in nine weeks, you don’t congratulate yourself, because you haven’t even started.

What were you reading while you wrote Stray?

I was really engaged with the work of Joan Didion. I don’t believe that we have anything in common stylistically. A lot of women, when we learn to write and fall in love with Joan Didion, we are mimicking her sentences, and I think that I’ve moved past that phase of my life, but she has a book called Where I Was From, and it’s extremely dry. The least personal memoir about being from California that you can possibly remember. And I think I was writing against that book, in a way. I’m much more confessional in general, and prone to the weaving of the historical and the personal. I returned to that book when I had problems, when I was stuck. I think what Joan does so well is what we were talking about earlier, which is overlay the psychological onto the physical world.

Nabokov’s Speak, Memory is just a masterpiece of a memoir, about mortality and memory and personal histories and their deceptiveness, and it is a book I return to again and again. There are people who write both—Carmen Maria Machado and Dani Shapiro come immediately to mind—and I was very freed by what they are able to do in memoir, and by knowing that they were also novelists. The work of James Baldwin. There’s an impressionism in his work that was really important to Stray. Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous came out that summer, and I had been a huge fan of his poetry for so many years. That was something where I’d already written the first draft, but during the revision process it felt like that book had been sent directly to me. And then I was also poring through The Gentrification of the Mind by Sarah Schulman, which is about the AIDS epidemic and the loss of New York City, and thinking, “This is the most important thing I could be reading right now,” even though it had nothing to do with what I was writing.

Annabel Graham is a writer, photographer, and illustrator from Malibu, California. She holds an MFA in fiction from NYU, and serves as fiction editor of No Tokens. For more, see